Updated: Oct. 15, 10:15 a.m.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Republican Sharron Angle finally faced off on live television Thursday after months of slamming each other over the airwaves. The hourlong debate may have given Nevada voters their best and only chance to compare their Senate candidates side by side, and it was the candidates’ opportunity to make their cases before early voting opens Saturday.
The opponents delivered some face-to-face jabs while working to define their positions on the issues. Angle has avoided most media outlets during the campaign, generating curiosity over how she would perform against the four-term incumbent. While the former state assemblywoman clearly glanced at her notes during some answers, Angle stayed on message, defended her positions and attacked Reid when she saw an opening.
Angle opened by contrasting her résumé as a grandmother and former teacher against Reid’s as a 30-year politician. She defended some of her positions that the Reid campaign has portrayed as extreme, while pushing her overarching campaign theme of standing for limited government. She accused Reid of advocating the opposite in his three decades in Washington.
She repeated her attack from an ad that Reid supports giving tax breaks and Social Security to illegal immigrants, defended her opinion that the Education Department should be eliminated and confirmed a claim from a Reid ad that she does not support mandating insurance companies to cover certain procedures, such as mammograms.
Reid described in detail the importance of mammograms and colonoscopies in preventing cancer. “Insurance companies don’t do things out of the good of their hearts,” he said. “We need to force them to do things like mammograms.”
Angle responded: “Pink ribbons are not going to make people have a better insurance plan. What makes people have a better insurance plan is competition.”
Angle also delivered some quick hits. On Social Security, Angle told Reid to “man up” to the fact that there is a shortfall and accused him of once again “trying to hedge on this issue.”
Reid called her support for privatizing Social Security “extreme,” a word he would repeat several times.
Other topics discussed included using Nevada’s Yucca Mountain to store nuclear waste, the Iraq War troop surge and taxes.
“I am for the middle class,” Reid said in his closing argument, contrasting his stance to Angle’s support for “big banks” and less regulation of the oil industry. “I am a fighter, and I will continue to fight for what I think is best for the American people.”
Economic troubles are the backdrop of the race. Nevada’s 14.4 percent unemployment rate is the highest among the states and nearly 5 percentage points higher than the nation as a whole. The state also has the highest rate of foreclosures. On top of that, Reid is running for re-election in a favorable cycle for Republicans.
Angle announced this week that she raised $14.3 million in the past three months, much of that coming in September. Although Reid hasn’t announced his third-quarter campaign haul, he began the period with a sizable cash advantage and has been running ads statewide for months.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has also dropped more than $2.6 million in TV time for the last two weeks of the campaign.
But despite all the spending and attack ads, the race continues to be a tossup, with both candidates polling in the mid-40s. Both campaigns said they were hoping the debate would be a game-changing night.
“Tonight’s debate was Sharron Angle’s last best chance to explain her extreme agenda to the voters of Nevada, however instead of explaining her record she chose to double down on its most dangerous elements,” Reid spokesman Kelly Steele said in an e-mail.
“Senator Reid is behind in the polls, trailing in fundraising, and did nothing tonight to change the trajectory of this race,” Angle’s communications director, Jarrod Agen, said in an e-mail. “With early voting just days away, Sharron Angle is now in position to save Nevada from another term of Harry Reid.”